31 January 2010

The powerhouse of the mind

Substantial attention has recently been given to the University of Shanghai's academic ranking of world universities.

For what it's worth, here is their top 100.

Notable points: Of the top 100 universities, Belgium, Norway, and Finland each have one, Israel has one (the Islamic world with two hundred times Israel's population has zero), the Netherlands has two, Denmark has two, France has three, Switzerland has three, Sweden has three, Australia has three, Canada has four, Germany has five, Japan has five, Britain has eleven -- and the United States has fifty-five. Even more telling, seventeen of the top twenty are American. The state of California alone has five of the top twenty.

Our nation is the powerhouse of the mind.

I cannot resist pointing out that the university I myself attended ranks, according to the list, third on the planet.

The real revolution

While I have been following political battles such as the struggle to enact health-care reform with keen interest, I do not accord those things the degree of preoccupation that many of my fellow liberal bloggers evidently do. Let me explain why.

I've seen an estimate that the net additional number of deaths in the US due to our cruel and inefficient health-insurance system, compared with what we would have under a universal-coverage system such as other developed countries have, is about 45,000 per year -- that is, implementing an optimally-structured system of socialized medicine in the US which worked exactly as intended would save 45,000 lives (net) per year. I've also seem claims that this figure is somewhat exaggerated, but let's assume for the sake of argument that it's correct.

In mid-2001 the FDA approved Gleevec, an anti-leukemia drug (which also shows signs of being effective against other forms of cancer) developed by Dr. Brian Druker at Oregon Health & Science University about four miles from where I am typing this. By the end of 2007 Gleevec had saved more than 100,000 lives.

If the 45,000-per-year figure above is accepted, then under the best-case scenario, implementing an ideal system of socialized medicine in the US would produce a net savings of about 300,000 lives over a six-and-a-half-year period. In fact, over the same period, one technological innovation, which most people reading this have probably never heard of, actually did save more than a third of that number, without epic political battles, billions of dollars wasted on pork and bribes, kowtowing to Joe Lieberman, or any kind of bureaucratic infighting other than the usual struggle needed to get a new treatment approved by the FDA.

And don't forget that, as the last year has shown all too clearly, an ideal health system is not politically possible. The best we could realistically get from Congress (the current Senate bill plus a few amendments, perhaps including a public option) would certainly be a huge improvement over the current system and would save many lives, but not 45,000 a year. Even if we do get that "best we could realistically get", it will very likely achieve less reduction of human death and suffering each year than the continued use of Gleevec alone does. And Gleevec is just one such technological innovation. How many others are out there now in use, or being developed in the lab, that you (and I) have never heard of either?

Almost certainly, our current rate of technological progress is doing far more every year to improve the human condition than every political reform we seek, combined, could ever do. Health-care reform would be beneficial and is worth fighting for, but technological progress is much more important. It also has the advantage of being mostly unaffected by politics, although Bush's stem-cell research funding restrictions were a major exception -- hence my observation that Obama's repeal of those restrictions was actually a more important accomplishment, measured by practical effects, than passing health-care reform would be.

This is part of a broader general principle. In a posting more than three years ago, I wrote:

"Technology has done far more to expand individual freedom and improve human life than ideology has. The enlightened skepticism which eroded away religious certainties during the Renaissance would have had a much harder time getting started without the printing press. It was industrialization and mass production, not ideology, that triggered the greatest explosion of material pros- perity in history. It was vaccines and antibiotics and modern nutrition, not ideology, that freed most humans from the scourge of premature death. It was the nuclear bomb, not ideology, that kept the developed world free from major wars from 1945 on (by making the consequences of such wars too terrible to risk). It was mostly modern contraception, not ideology, which began to free human sexuality from ancient religious taboos. Today it is the internet, not ideology, which is enabling ordinary people all over the planet to outflank and roll back the power of big media, totalitarian governments, and the like, and is making censorship (whether motivated by leftist or rightist "concerns") more and more impractical."

Technological progress is almost unstoppable and is global in its effects. A few votes in Congress can kill a political reform, but research is much more difficult to obstruct; in the worst-case scenario, scientists will move to another country and continue their work there (as some American stem-cell researchers went to work in Britain during the Bush years). And socialized medicine in Britain or France does not benefit anyone outside those countries, while a new medical treatment developed in Britain or France rapidly comes into use around the world, including here in the US -- just as such innovations here benefit people everywhere.

The real revolution is in the laboratories.

30 January 2010

Link roundup for 30 January 2010

Modern government is helpless in the face of the bagel menace (sent by Mendip).

Ragebot reviews the week in death.

Don't leave your "to do" list lying around, if it's like this one (found via Mendip). More Facebook issues here.

What would your last words be?

These actors pushed on-stage realism a bit far (found via Mendip).

CBS: Beer, bathroom humor and anti-abortion propaganda are OK, dating is not-OK.

Shannon Minter reviews the Prop. 8 trial. Short version: the good guys wiped the floor with the bad guys.

This is not the way to improve your kid's grades.

Ranch Chimp has another view of the public option.

Ron Chusid explains the origin of the deficit so even a teabagger can understand it.

The public despises the government, but not Obama. Noteworthy: huge majorities want more regulation of banks and Wall Street.

What is Rahm Emanuel up to?

Annette has a fiery post on infighting within the left. Oliver Willis weighs in here, another view here.

Obama isn't the first President to point out that he's fighting an inherited mess.

In a gesture toward sanity, the Republican party rejects the hard-right "purity test".

A Fox survey shows that Americans are wary of teabaggerdom.

David Neiwert looks at Jonah Goldberg's distortions about fascism (found via Religious Right Watch).

The controversy over those Bible quotes on Trijicon gunsights brings a nasty strain of religious hatred to the surface.

The militia movement hopes for a come-back on the teabaggers' coat-tails.

GodLizard looks at the religious mentality.

The CIA intends to require language proficiency as a condition of promotion (found via The Crossed Pond).

Islam demands respect. Here's an example of the values we're being asked to respect.

Russia rolls out a new fighter plane.

China may re-consider eating cats and dogs.

If it's so warm, how come it's so cold?

29 January 2010

California's health-reform plan

The California state senate has passed legislation to create a state-wide universal health-care system on the "Medicare for all" model. (Found via Hello..... Mr. President -- read the comments too.) It's unclear whether the reform will actually go into effect, since the governor apparently intends to veto it. The plan is sponsored by the California Nurses Association and has strong voter support which could encourage legislators to override a veto.

Thought for the day

Whatever difficulties we now face, be thankful that the Democratic party did not nominate John Edwards in 2008. Just imagine if the current implosion of his personal life were happening to him as President, in the midst of the current phalanx of crises. It would be a distraction of Monicagate-like proportions, at the time when the country could least afford it.

In hot water

I've posted before about the growing controversy surrounding next month's National Tea Party Convention, as suspicions of profiteering and exploitation deepen.

Now it looks like the whole event may be falling apart, with major speakers pulling out.

Teabaggerdom will never be an ally of the left, but a bit of healthy skepticism toward the right as well wouldn't go amiss.

28 January 2010

SOTU links

It is, of course, too soon to tell how effective the speech was, but early reactions look positive. Detailed blogger discussion here, here, here, and here. Sample of more reactions here. No doubt others will chime in over the next day or two.

27 January 2010

The battle of California

While most liberal bloggers are understandably pre-occupied with last week's events and the upcoming State of the Union speech, don't forget that the Proposition 8 trial in California is also winding down; today should be the last day of actual testimony, though the judge's verdict will not come until several weeks after that.

From what I've seen on the Prop. 8 Trial Tracker, the proceedings have had something of the flavor of Kitzmiller v. Dover* about them. The creationists could sound superficially convincing in distortion-filled propaganda aimed at people with little actual knowledge, but under expert cross-examination, they imploded; they had no coherent case. Here, similarly, SSM opponents seem unable to offer any rational basis for their position, only prejudice which has never needed to be defended logically, and cannot be; there's no "there" there.

The implications of this trial could be enormous; remember that it is being conducted in federal court, with the plaintiffs claiming that Proposition 8 violates the federal Constitution. The verdict could end up being appealed to the Supreme Court, which in turn could conceivably lead to a ruling from that body that anti-SSM laws are unconstitutional -- which would sweep away such laws nationwide at one stroke. It would be a victory to rank with the Civil Rights Act, Loving v. Virginia, or Roe v. Wade.

*On the fascinating Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, I recommend Edward Humes's lively book Monkey Girl, which I will probably review on this blog at some point.

A possibly-necessary clarification

When I've said the right wing should return to the rational conser-vatism of the pre-Moral-Majority era, I didn't mean Watergate.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

On 27 January 1945, the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi extermination camps. The date is now comme-morated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

While it is vital to remember the past and to uphold the integrity of history against those who deny that the Nazi atrocities even happened, we must also not flinch from recognizing that genocidal anti-Jewish hatred still festers in some quarters even today, most virulently among extremist Muslims. Beyond those who deny the Holocaust there are those who aspire to repeat it. The civilized world must ensure that they do not succeed. Never again!

26 January 2010

Video of the week

Use four-arrow icon (2nd from lower right) for full-screen version.

24 January 2010

Historical vignette 5: the plague cats

Between 1347 and 1352 the Black Death raged throughout Europe, killing at least 25 million people, about a third of Europe's total population at that time.

A little-known contributing factor was the Christian hatred of cats during medieval times. For centuries cats had been suspected of being the "familiars" of witches (the witch's black cat is an image which persists in popular culture today) and were even associated with the Devil. By the time the Black Death struck, Europe's cat population had been drastically reduced by widespread killing. What these superstitious people didn't realize was that cats help to limit rat populations and to keep rats away from human homes and food supplies. And rats, of course, were the vehicle of the fleas that carried the plague.

Deviants who continued to keep pet cats likely had better chances of surviving the plague, though they must also have run a greater risk of being suspected of witchcraft.

More here on the historical relationship between man and moggy.

Doing the right thing

From their side: Cindy McCain poses for a pro-gay-marriage ad. (Update: a conservative blogger posts on this here.)

From our side: Jon Stewart schools Keith Olbermann about his intemperate comments on Scott Brown.

The principle of the thing

Amid all the hyperventilation over last Thursday's Supreme Court ruling about corporate political-ad spending, has it occurred to anyone that perhaps the reason the restrictions were struck down is that they were actually unconstitutional?

I'm no expert on Constitutional law, but the First Amendment's guarantee of free expression has always been interpreted quite broadly (thank goodness), applying to far more than just literal "speech" or the literal "press". That's why things like radio, movies, video, and blogs are covered, though the authors of the First Amendment could never even have imagined such media. It's hard to see how spending money on advertising to advance a political viewpoint could fail to be covered as well.

Yes, the actual effects of the ruling will be more bad than good (though note that it empowers unions as well as corporations) and it will complicate efforts to reduce the influence of money in politics, but it probably won't make much difference. The courts are supposed to rule on the basis of protecting Constitutional guarantees, not on the basis of whether the effects of the rulings are good or bad. The same principle that gave us this ruling also gave us Roe v. Wade, Loving v. Virginia, Kitzmiller v. Dover, etc., all of which remain the law of the land even though the rightists bitch endlessly about "judicial activism". That principle has to be upheld even when it's our side that doesn't like the results.

23 January 2010

Get a grip!

This was a bad week, there's no doubt about it. We had a defeat in Massachusetts and a bad Supreme Court ruling about corporate political-ad spending. What I really can't believe, though, is what I'm seeing on some blogs. It's the end of the world. It's the end of democracy. It's (I've actually seen this) "fascism". It's game over. The enemy has won. We might as well give up on real health-care reform and on everything else. The Democrats can't do anything. Obama will be a lame duck and a one-term President. Moan, groan, doom, gloom.

Jesus fuck a shit soufflé, people, get a grip!

Brown and the court ruling are setbacks. They may even turn out to be serious ones. We've had setbacks before, some of them much worse. Remember Proposition 8? The Nader-spawned fiasco of 2000 that gave us eight years of Bush? The Republican tsunami of 1994? Reagan carrying 49 states in 1984? The King assassination? Where the hell would we be now if the good guys had just declared game over and given up after any of those defeats?

Yes, Obama is not without flaws -- too timid, too centrist, too concerned with bipartisanship. When has there been a President who was not at least equally flawed? Yes, many Democrats in Congress are cowards and some are corrupt. When has that ever not been the case? Yes, we've had losses. What administration has not? (It was also said of Clinton and Reagan, early on, that they would be one-term, failed Presidents.) Yes, the opposition has mobilized hordes of stupid, ignorant, possibly-violent fanatics. Remember the militia movement of the 90s? The Moral Majority? The KKK? It is necessary to persevere in the face of an imperfect world.

Our side has the Presidency and huge majorities in both Houses. Obama, whatever his shortcomings, is highly intelligent and has gotten much more accomplished than I, for one, ever expected. We still have nine months to go until the elections, during which the economy will probably keep improving and all kinds of things we can't anticipate now, both good and bad, will happen.

Stop moaning and stop mourning. You sound like a bunch of Europeans. Remember Dr. King, Frederick Douglass, César Chávez, Harvey Milk, the suffragettes and union organizers of a century ago, and all the other fighters who kept on fighting in circumstances far more dark and discouraging and dangerous than anything we face, and whose victories got us where we are today -- what would they think if they could see such whining, sniveling, defeatist quitters proclaiming the end of the world because one of the crummiest candidates the Democratic party has ever put forward lost one election by five percentage points? What would the people who are struggling against real fascism in Iran right now think if they heard Americans shouting "fascism" over a court ruling on political-ad spending?

I will probably get deleted from half-a-dozen blogrolls for writing this, but that's not the end of the world either. Screw it, sometimes you just have to tell it like it is.

Link roundup for 23 January 2010

See startling ice ribbons (found via Mendip).

Natural selection in action -- dumb people do dumb things and get hurt.

Some of us get it right the first time.

A fake cop gets arrested by a fake prostitute (found via Mendip).

View waves as you've never seen them before (click pictures for bigger versions).

The original tale of Newton and the apple is on the internet.

Bay of Fundie continues to cover a creationist lie-fest.

Flying Air France gets more comfortable.

You can become a Republican (found via Mad Mike's America).

Jack Jodell has a warning from 2017.

Another horrendously fake bigfoot video surfaces in Oregon.

The Tiller trial brings out some nasty stuff.

Bill Gates seizes a teachable moment in Saudi Arabia.

Rita has some questions about religion, sexual repression, and the subjugation of women.

Don't get pregnant in Florida.

Sounds like Biden will be on board if the Senate tries to change the filibuster rule.

Andrew Sullivan has observations on meth and fundamentalism.

MicShots sums up the Republican agenda (found via Nancy).

This is what the fight for health-care reform is really about. Don't forget the real reason why it's losing support. Keep fighting.

California and Washington are considering broad legalization of marijuana, not just for medicinal use. 56% of Californians favor the idea.

Scott Brown won because he's a moderate. Republicans in general remain unpopular. Keep things in perspective.

Looks like Obama is going populist. Good move in response to the real message of Massachusetts. More here.

The Haïtian earthquake has theists floundering again.

Britain's nationalist party, the UKIP, wants to ban the burkha.

Taiwan and mainland China have different goals in Haïti.

A new movie about Darwin may prove hard to find in the US.

Australia's giant native animals were wiped out by humans.

I bet Texas will want a herd of these.

Neptune and Uranus may have oceans of liquid diamond, with huge solid diamonds floating in them like icebergs.

Social-insect colonies function like single organisms (this has occurred to me too).

The last decade was the warmest on record (until, no doubt, the next one).

Sierra Sciences aims to fight aging by telomerase induction.

20 January 2010

So Coakley loses (updated)

Yes, it's a big disappointment, and the trolls and, worse, the cynics and defeatists on our own side will be blathering up a storm across the blogosphere for a while. There will be the usual wallowing in recriminations: if only we'd had a better candidate than Coakley, if only the health-reform bill hadn't had to be stripped of its most popular provisions to get Lieberman's vote, etc. That's not what matters now. What does matter is: Can health-care reform still be enacted? Can an effective jobs bill still be gotten through? (What happens in November will still be determined mostly by how well employment has recovered.) The answers to those questions will be determined less by what the intricate arcana of Congressional procedural rules allow than by what Democrats have the guts to do and what Obama decides to push them to do, and it will take a while for that to become apparent.

(For anyone burned out on election blues, well, the last few posts below are on other topics.)

Don't over-interpret what happened. This was just a single close election under conditions where everything was stacked against us. The Democrats have actually had a productive first year. We don't know whether they will now panic and retreat into more futile bipartisanship and end up in total paralysis, or get tougher. We don't know whether the rightists will overreach or whether the teabaggers will get out of control. On the gloomy day after a defeat, your judgment is not going to be at its best. Time will tell.

Update (21 January): This is worth a read, especially the last three paragraphs. As for me, I'm through with opining about what to do about this. There's no shortage of advice out there -- use reconciliation, pass the Senate bill in the House, water down the reform further to get one Republican vote, drop it and wait until after November, etc. Obama and the Congressional leadership are certainly fully aware of all those options already, and have a much better sense of the real advantages, drawbacks, and likelihood of success of each, than most of the people importuning them to do one thing or another. And don't miss this -- preventing a repeat of the Bush recession is an important issue too.

18 January 2010

A memory of Berkeley

I spent my university years in Berkeley, California, a place very different from the suburban environment I'd previously been used to. One of Berkeley's most salient features was its large population of homeless people who panhandled for spare change everywhere. They were occasionally aggressive, but it was the pervasiveness of the practice that made it a nuisance.

I don't remember exactly when this specific incident happened, but it must have been soon after I arrived there. I do remember that it was twilight.

Some ways away from me -- perhaps it was across the street -- a homeless man with his belongings (mostly bedding or something similar by the looks of it) in a shopping cart had been stopped by two cops. He had two or three of those big 40-ounce bottles of cheap alcohol in his possession. The cops unscrewed the tops of the bottles and stuck them upside down in the mass of stuff in the cart and left them like that while they talked with the homeless guy. I was too far away to hear what was being said, but I could see the bubbles glugging upward inside the bottles as their contents emptied out into the material in the cart, saturating it. I don't remember whether I stopped to watch the encounter through to its end, but it was pretty clear what they were doing -- keeping the guy talking until all his stuff was thoroughly soaked.

Looking back on this now, the odd thing is that at the time the cops' behavior didn't strike me as particularly shocking or wrong or even surprising. Back then, I was still at the stage of getting used to the world, and of simply accepting whatever I saw. If I thought about it at all, I figured that was just the kind of thing that was normally done with bums. They weren't quite people, not the way neighbors and professors and fellow students were people.

It's a strange thing to remember a time when I myself, by my own current standards, sometimes wouldn't have seemed quite human.

In recognition of the day and the man

One of the most powerful speeches ever made in our language.

The passive brain

This study of Australian TV viewers (found via Middle of Nowhere) confirms what we pretty much knew all along -- that excessive TV-watching shortens your life, even when other risk factors such as weight are corrected for. It has long been known that a sedentary lifestyle and lack of exercise speed up the aging process.

What's interesting, though, is that the factors corrected for in the study included exercise habits -- that is, there's a correlation between longer hours in front of the TV and earlier death even between people whose exercise habits are similar. So it's not just that TV addicts die sooner because they exercise less. There's something more beyond that.

TV-watching differs from other physically-inactive behaviors -- such as reading the internet, sitting at a desk working, or doing crossword puzzles -- in one very obvious way: the extreme mental passivity it requires. Those other activities are highly interactive; you're making decisions all the time, operating the computer or writing things down, controlling what's happening. Even when reading a book, you may slow down to read a challenging passage more carefully, or skip a boring one, or go back to take a second look at something you're not sure you fully absorbed. You stop and start as you choose.

(I suspect that the fact that seeing images and hearing sound are natural to us, while reading and understanding print is a learned behavior, plays a role. Extracting information from lines of text must make your brain work harder than watching images and hearing speech, simply because the former comes less naturally to it than the latter.)

Watching TV has no such interactive quality. It's purely a one-way flow of information. The program comes on when it comes on, not when you decide you want to start (or stop) watching. You can't speed it up, slow it down, or go back. Your brain has nothing to do. Brainwaves of people watching TV become reduced in a way reminiscent of sleep. It seems fairly obvious that that wouldn't be the case in people surfing the net or doing crossword puzzles.

Everyone knows that muscles which are not exercised become weaker, while exercise makes them grow stronger. This "use it or lose it" phenomenon applies to the brain as well. Old people who regularly engage in some kind of stimulating mental activity tend to keep up their full mental faculties better then those who don't.

Deterioration of mental sharpness might well shorten life. It would surely make life less worth living.

A glance at a typical cross-section of Americans affirms that over-eating and lack of exercise are our most pressing health problems, and those things should remain the focus of any effort to improve health. But even among the physically inactive ways in which we spend so much of our time, not all are equally bad.

Following the money

"Let me be blunt: charging people $500.00 plus the costs of travel and lodging to go to a “National Tea Party Convention” run by a for profit group no one has ever heard of sounds as credible as an email from Nigeria promising me a million bucks if I fork over my bank account number."

Erickson is no liberal; he's a right-winger who blogs at RedState. But it's not difficult for anyone perceptive to notice that a lot of what's going on on the right these days has more than a slight whiff of lucrative exploitation about it.

Frank Rich (found via Liberal Values) fingers not only the dubious Tea Party Convention but also Republican party chairman Michael Steele, who has acquired a reputation as a buffoon but has proven remarkably adept at making money from various side activities while neglecting his duties to the party. Openly daring the party to fire him if they don't like how he's handling the job, Steele knows he's got his employers over a barrel; as Rich says, "Steele knows better than anyone that his party can’t afford what Clarence Thomas might call a “high-tech lynching” of the only visible black guy it has in even a second-tier office."

Sarah Palin, too, has a track record of quitting projects half-way through while diligently sniffing out opportunities to exploit her popularity on the right for cash.

As for the Tea Party Convention, well, the teabagger movement has been characterized by both deep passion and deep naïveté, and that's a combination which is bound to attract scam artists the way blood in the water attracts sharks.

A big part of the right's de facto agenda has been to defend the ability of the already wealthy to get even wealthier at the expense of the masses. Why should we be surprised if the same mentality operates within the movement itself?

The problem is, the broad masses of people are never as dumb as the elites like to believe they are. If this kind of thing continues, sooner or later the teabaggers are going to figure out that they're being exploited and ripped off by "leaders" they trust, at which point they may turn against the Republican establishment. The question is when this will happen. Late October would be good.

Best of the Infidel, 2009

Last year I once again let this blog get excessively dominated by politics. (This year I'll do better!) Nevertheless, I think I came up with a few worthwhile postings.

Aim at the head!

Epitaph: Bush's greatest crime

The relentless carnage continues

The EU doesn't play by its own rules

A dangerous misunderstanding

Limbaugh of the lost

The darkness can lift (if you read only one of these, read this one)

Tax the churches!

Tax the stoners! (and hookers!)

An illusion which has no future

Why are they the villains?

The walker and the dancer

Assessing Obama and PUMA

When pigs fly? Swine flew!


In our nature

To see the truth for themselves

The old future and the new

The bolder vision

Pikaia gracilens

House on Mars

Tyranny, freedom, and priorities

Psychological background noise

Six views of our planet

A specter is haunting Europe

Digging in

Excusing the crimes of the elite

Inevitable morality

Petits français

Half a loaf

There is no singleness of identity

Courageous atheist

Focus on the real problem

17 January 2010

Quote for the day

"The reason it took a year to pass health care, when it had been teed up well before Obama's inauguration, was because Democrats tried to get the GOP onboard. Remember the months and months of wooing Olympia Snowe? Obama's health care conferences? But the GOP decided to simply just vote no, because electorally that was their best bet. And what your reader shows is that it works; by simply obstructing and voting no, they get people to believe that it was Democrats' fault nothing gets done, and that they should vote for the GOP, so that Dems will have to compromise. Bullshit. That's insane."
Anonymous reader here

16 January 2010

Now this is why we vote for Democrats

"We’re already hearing a hue and cry from Wall Street suggesting that this proposed fee is not only unwelcome but unfair.....that by some twisted logic it is more appropriate for the American people to bear the cost of the bailout rather than the industry that benefited from it, even though these executives are out there giving themselves huge bonuses.....What I say to these executives is this: Instead of sending a phalanx of lobbyists to fight this proposal or employing an army of lawyers and accountants to help evade the fee, I suggest you might want to consider simply meeting your responsibilities."

The subject of this strong language is a proposed fee, or tax, on financial institutions to recoup as much as possible of the federal money which was spent bailing them out and stabilizing them last year. The days of bonuses in six, seven, and even eight figures having returned, it's hard to argue that these institutions are still in fragile condition -- indeed, they're doing far better than the rest of the economy is doing in the wake of the recession they caused.

Small local banks would be exempt from the proposed tax, which would discourage the big institutions from simply passing along the cost to their customers -- since doing so would put them at a competitive disadvantage against the small banks.

There's some suggestion that the Republicans are nervous about opposing the tax plan, due to a fear of being seen as too blatantly in Wall Street's pocket. And some Democrats in both Houses of Congress want even tougher measures, such as a punitive tax on giant executive bonuses.

This is more like it, guys. Keep it up.

The Massachusetts nail-biter

We have a problem, and it's partly of our own making, or more exactly, of the Massachusetts Democratic party's own making.

This coming Tuesday is the date of the special election to fill Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. In Massachusetts, one of the bluest states in the country, the result should be a foregone conclusion. It's not.

The Democratic candidate, Martha Coakley, is a poor campaigner with a dubious-at-best track record. The Republican candidate, Scott Brown, is a moderate on many issues (such as abortion), with little to hide; though this may come back to haunt him, and (most important at the moment) he intends to vote against the health-reform bill. If the bill fails now, we will eventually get a reform much less progressive and more skewed toward the right than the current compromise (to accommodate a Senate with 41 rather than 40 Republicans) or, more likely, no reform at all.

The Republicans are in a strong position because they nominated a moderate and, unlike in NY-23, the radical right did not jump in to support a hard-line challenger. The Democrats apparently thought the race was such an easy win that they could get away with nominating a weak candidate. How we got into this mess, however, is less important than how we're going to get out of it.

The polls have been all over the map, but most suggest a close race. In reality, Coakley will probably win. Bill Clinton has been campaigning for her, and Obama himself is now on the way to Massachusetts to do the same (more on that here). But the state Democratic party should not have put the President and the country in such a precarious position.

If I'm interpreting this correctly, the House and Senate have achieved a breakthrough in negotiating a final version of the health bill which will allow a final vote within ten days -- that is, before the winner of Tuesday's election is seated. If so, they can save the bill. But if Brown wins, any future legislation will be subject to even more obstruction and compromise in the Senate than health reform was.

If Brown wins, as I see it, the Senate will have no option but to confront the real issue in all this -- the Senate filibuster rules which require a de-facto 60-vote super-majority to pass anything. It's those rules that forced the Democrats to cave to Lieberman and strip the bill of the public option and Medicare expansion which clear majorities of the people support; it's those rules which may yet defeat a reform favored by clear majorities in both Houses. This un-democratic anachronism needs to be swept away.

But most immediately, we need to keep the opposition from getting its hands on that crucial 41st seat. Health reform is too important to risk; there are lives at stake, tens of thousands of them. It's going to be a tense Tuesday night.

Reformed conservatism

A recurring theme on this blog has been my hope that the more moderate and rational conservatives would eventually take their movement and the Republican party back from the radical crazies. Here, I'm going to clarify what I mean by that.

In a nutshell, I will consider conservatism to have become a sane and legitimate movement when it renounces the following:

1) endorsement of creationism

2) endorsement of global-warming denialism

3) intent to make abortion illegal

4) opposition to gay equality, including civil marriage

The first two are rooted in reality-denial and contempt for science; the last two in cruelty, bigotry and sexual puritanism. All of them are directly or indirectly rooted in religious fundamentalism. In brief, a sane conservatism means a secular conservatism.

There are few conservatives who renounce all four of the above, but there are a fair number who renounce two or three of them. Those are the people I'm pinning my hopes on.

Debates about the proper size and role of government, about the best strategies for national defense, about how we can deal most effectively with global warming, etc. are debates that we need to have. Conservative viewpoints on those issues are not delusional or hateful, merely different. We need a political force to represent them. We don't need a political force representing reality-denial, hatred, and religious fanaticism. Right now the latter element has the upper hand within the right. That's what must change.

Link roundup for 16 January 2010

Rare "snow rollers" appear in Britain (found via Mendip).

Jon Stewart takes on the underwear bomber.

Could TSA body scanners raise money for the government?

ZOMG LOL -- the fall of Eve gets the texting treatment.

I guess these people needed to lose a bit more weight.

Europe lacks excitement, but that's not so bad.

Boyanka Angelova performs an amazing ball ballet.

Majority of Two contrasts the illusion and reality of smoking.

K-rina's latest video tackles anti-gay prejudices.

The Obama administration's first year has been full of important accomplishments (must-see).

Obama's fiscal policy contrasts dramatically with Bush's.

Parsley's Pics looks back at hurricane Katrina (be sure to read all the comments).

Bill Clinton is not in hiding.

Roger Ebert responds to Limbaugh (found via The Crossed Pond).

Belief in faith healing claims yet another victim (natural selection in action).

The kleptocracy that caused, and also profited from, the Bush recession has a history.

The Christian Right will be well represented at next month's Tea Party National Convention.

Ugandan fundamentalists are determined to push ahead with their draconian anti-gay law.

Google stands up to the thuggery of the Beijing gangster-regime.

Britain bans Anjem Choudary's Muslim-extremist organization. Next it needs to deal with this.

Most Afghans are optimistic about the future, and support for a Taliban restoration has fallen to 6%.

Muslims in Malaysia riot over Christians using the word "Allah".

The celebrated "Earth-like" planet CoRoT-7b probably started out as a gas giant.

The sea slug Elysia chlorotica can do something no other known animal can do -- photosynthesize, like a plant. Even more amazing, it acquired this ability by assimilating genes from plants it ate into its own genome.

Arctic tundra melting due to global warming is releasing increa-sing levels of methane, a greenhouse gas (found via Politics Plus).

An ancient South American fertilizer could help reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Robots are the future of warfare, and Israel is leading the way.

A test developed in Britain may be able to diagnose Alzheimer's twenty years before it strikes.

There doesn't need to be a last day.

15 January 2010

California's proposition 8 trial

The first great civil-rights battle of 2010 is being live-blogged at Courage Campaign and Firedoglake. Andrew Sullivan observes the nature of the opposition here.

Haïti -- donate safely

Here are some tips for avoiding scams, and a list of safe groups.

14 January 2010

The Devil made God do it

While everyone else has been horrified by the massive earthquake in Haïti, and governments and aid agencies worldwide scramble to send help, Pat Robertson has come up with his own unique take on the situation: the earthquake was God's punishment upon Haïti because the Haïtians made a deal with Satan to win independence from France.

Aside from the fact that Haïti became independent in 1804, and if Robertson's God existed anybody who was involved in its struggle for independence would presumably have faced his judgment in person quite some time ago, consider the mentality this implies. Recall too that after the September 11 terrorist attack Robertson, along with Jerry Falwell, declared that the mass murder was God's judgment on the United States for tolerating feminism, paganism, secularism, homosexuality, abortion, and various other things that fundamentalists dislike. Pat Robertson lives in the Dark Ages.

Pat Robertson also founded a "law school" from whose "graduates" President Bush filled numerous important posts.

Insanity exists and it is up to our votes to keep it away from the levers of power. Never forget that.

Update: Politics Plus has Limbaugh's almost-equally-incredible comments, and a response from Olbermann. Teabagger/Randroid petition here (found via Nancy).

Machineries of joy

Recently several blogs have posted bemused entries on Roxxxy the sex robot (recently unveiled at the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo in las Vegas), and somewhat earlier a few similarly posted about Aiko (not a commercial product but the hobby of Canadian inventor Le Trung). These are basically high-tech sex dolls with AI that gives them a limited ability to talk and, in Aiko's case, move. There are bound to be more such robots, and more sophisticated ones, over time as AI becomes cheaper and more advanced. Just about every new media technology that comes along, from paint to photography to film to video to the internet, has been adapted for pornography and has proven profitable when used for that purpose; the continuation of this trend with AI and robotics is hardly surprising.

What interests me about this phenomenon is not so much the robots themselves as the consensus response to them. A majority of comments take it for granted that anyone who would actually use such a robot must be pathetic, nerdy, socially disfunctional, too unattractive to find a real partner (or too timid to try), etc.

I find this reaction curious. The trend for decades has been toward ever-greater acceptance of sexual behavior which deviates from convention but is not coercive or harmful, such as homosexuality, pre-marital or extra-marital sex, etc. More relevantly, everyone knows that some people (and not as few as we might think) choose to live without a sexual relationship for significant periods of time; some lack the attractiveness, gumption, or social skills needed to find a real partner, some have unrealistically high standards, some just prefer not to deal with the complexities that such a relation- ship involves. Voluntary celibates are not generally viewed as pathetic or laughable (certainly not in the case of women).

Moreover, everyone realizes that most people who are not in a sexual relationship masturbate sometimes -- and for that matter, many people who are in such a relationship do as well. And many people use pictures or implements to assist in doing so -- just look at the size and profitability of the industries which supply those things. This is not something most people ever discuss in normal conversation (nor are the details of people's sexual interaction with actual partners), but just about everyone would acknowledge the truth of it after a moment's reflection. Sex robots are just an extension of the same practice.

So why do Roxxxy and Aiko cross a line? Why do they make some people (I'm interpreting here, but I think it's true) nervous?

The question isn't going away. The profitability of internet porn shows that erotica becomes more attracive as technological progress makes it more realistic and accessible, no matter how much people fulminate about it. Sex robots will also become more appealing as AI approaches the sophistication and subtelty of actual human minds (and that is years, not decades or centuries, away), and as prices come down, they will become more common. In a decade or two this will probably be looked upon the way things like unmarried cohabitation or voluntary celibacy are looked upon now -- an option, not better or worse, just different.

12 January 2010

Looking ahead to 2010

(A companion post, Janus-style, to this one.)

As last year foreshadowed, the place most likely to produce a world-changing event in 2010 is Iran. In December it became clear that the uprising is very much alive and not going away -- and is becoming both more radical in its aims and more willing to use violence. At the same time, stories circulate of government forces refusing orders to fire on crowds. The echoes of 1978-1979 are unmistakable; the fall of the Islamic Republic some time this year now strikes me as more likely than not.

What happens in Iran matters a great deal to the rest of the world. The theocracy is a major supporter of terrorism and extremism in the Middle East, and its fall would simplify other problems such as Iraq and the jihadist threats to Israel from Gaza and southern Lebanon. A successful Iranian revolution would also free the West from the terrible dilemma posed by the Iranian nuclear program. The likely consequences of an American or Israeli military strike against the nuclear program would be horrendous; the likely consequences of the current Iranian regime actually acquiring nuclear weapons would be vastly worse. But a secular and/or democratic Iranian government, even if it is not as friendly to the West as we would hope, might abandon the nuclear program or, more likely, become the kind of state whose possession of nuclear weapons we could live with (we can co-exist with unfriendly-but-rational nuclear-armed regimes, such as China, because their rationality allows the normal logic of deterrence to apply). In the best-case scenario, if events in Iran produce a fully secular state willing to align with the West, the whole situation in the Middle East would be changed for the better.

In the United States, attention is already beginning to turn to this November's elections. One must of course be careful not to set the bar too high; the party holding the Presidency normally loses House seats in a mid-term election. A Democratic loss of around 15 seats would be a middle-of-the road outcome. A much bigger loss, as in 1994, would be a clear Republican win; no significant shift, or an increase in the Democrats' majority, would be a clear Democratic win.

Personally I'm not too worried. In the absence of some surprise game-changing event, the voters in November will judge the Democrats mainly by whether employment has improved signifi-cantly. The recession has now been over for months, and while jobs are always one of the last parts of the economy to recover, it will be surprising if there hasn't been major improvement by November. Still, the Democrats need to make jobs a top priority this year. There is much that the government can do -- one thing that comes to mind is a re-ordering of tax incentives to encourage job creation and penalize offshoring.

But what about those "game-changing events"? Here are a few that might shift the outcome:

A major scandal engulfing a national figure. If, say, Palin or Obama were caught in a sex scandal or something criminal, the effects could be serious. I see no indication of any such thing on the horizon, but surprises do happen.

A serious third-party challenge or disaffection on the left. I have mentioned before that the Republicans seem to be trying to bring this about; it would tilt some close elections their way and shift the government to the right.

A serious third-party challenge or disaffection on the right. This actually strikes me as more likely, given the serious split on the right between radicals and moderates; it would tilt some close elections to the Democrats and shift the government to the left. NY-23 is the model; something similar may be brewing in the Florida Senate race, as radical-right groups rally to support the strongly-conservative Rubio against the more moderate and more electable Crist. Replication of the same pattern across the country could produce a whole slew of unexpected Democratic wins.

Gay marriage at the Supreme Court. Marriage advocates are suing in federal court to overturn California's proposition 8, which abolished gay marriage in that state, based on a claim that it violates the federal Constitution. Because the suit is a federal one, whichever side loses may appeal to the Supreme Court. That could conceivably result in a ruling that laws banning gay marriage are unconstitutional, which would effectively legalize gay marriage nationwide. This would certainly galvanize the fundamentalist bigots for November -- but a victory of such magnitude would arguably be worth losing some House seats for. A Supreme Court ruling upholding proposition 8 might also hurt the Democrats slightly, by fueling cynicism (among people who don't understand how politics works) about the disappointing pace of progress even with Democrats in power.

A conservative return to sanity. What if the moderate, rational conservatives rally and take the Republican party back from the Beck-Limbaugh-teabagger-fundamentalist radical element? This will almost certainly happen, but not this year. Normally such a recovery happens only after a string of electoral defeats. Consider the left's years in the wilderness during the 80s, which ended only when moderates like Clinton pulled our side back toward the political center.

A serious legislative blunder by the Democrats. The most obvious possibility is pushing an illegal-alien amnesty, which would surely be massively punished by the voters in November, and rightly so. I think, however, that Obama is too politically savvy to let such a thing happen, especially at a time of high unemployment.

Failure of health-care reform to pass. It's not quite a done deal yet. In particular, note the special election in Massachusetts next Tuesday for Kennedy's Senate seat. A defeat there would give the Republicans 41 seats, but that would also highlight the urgency of the filibuster issue (see below). But I think a loss here is unlikely.

A natural disaster. Katrina became part of the litany of Bush's failures; a weak or strong response to another such event could harm or help the current party in power.

A climate-related disaster that sweeps away the credibility of global-warming denialism. This would hurt the radical right and help the Democrats and the moderate right. In the long run such an event is inevitable, but the probability in any given year is low.

A major Islamic terrorist attack. Another 9/11 would give the Republicans an issue; a strong and effective response by the government could, however, turn that around. But I think such an event is extremely unlikely. No such attack has happened in the US since 9/11 itself. Whatever the reasons -- effective US counter-measures, a conclusion by jihadists that the consequences of such an attack would be undesirable, or something else -- those reasons will continue to be in effect.

A major domestic right-wing terrorist attack. There has been plenty of warning (see for example here and here). The obvious possibilities are either an attack on a government facility similar to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, or an assassination of the President. The repercussions of such a horror would obviously be so explosive that its effect on the elections would seem secondary by comparison.

Aside from the elections, I see two other important issues in American politics this year.

First, the health-reform battle made it clear that the Senate's filibuster rules are seriously un-democratic in effect and need to be changed. This is, in fact, the most important issue for the Democrats to focus on in the near-term future. Without the 60-vote super-majority requirement, Lieberman would have been irrelevant and the Senate bill would not have been stripped of its best and most broadly-popular provisions. If that requirement remains in place, similar obstructionism and watering-down will face every major piece of legislation from now on, especially if Democrats lose a Senate seat or two. A 58-40 majority is a clear popular mandate; it should not be stymied as we saw last year.

Second, assuming that the health bill does pass as expected, some elements of it will take effect this year; you can read about that here (read this too). How or whether this will affect the elections is hard to say, but it will bring real help to millions of people, surely a main purpose of holding political power in the first place.

Outside the realm of US politics entirely, here are a few other possible "game changers":

A major Islamic terrorist attack in a foreign country. The most likely targets would be India, Russia, or western Europe. How probable this is is very difficult to assess.

An economic collapse and/or political upheaval in China. Among major countries, China is uniquely riddled with risk factors for such an event and (due to its rigid political system) uniquely ill-equipped to handle it if it happens. Eventually it will happen -- but it's impossible to say when.

A US or Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear program. This would have vast repercussions, but that very fact makes it unlikely because, for both countries, the blowback would make such an attack a last resort. It's unlikely that either country will judge Iran to be so close to actually building a nuclear bomb that a pre-emptive attack is necessary this year (and there are other ways of slowing the program's progress); and both have an incentive to wait and give the popular uprising the chance to succeed and defuse the problem without military action (see above).

A crisis in Europe over the role of the EU. Resentment over the erosion of national sovereignty is high in several countries and could come to a head. Britain, for example, will hold an election by mid-year. The Conservative party will almost certainly win, but if the UKIP (Britain's nationalist party) does better than expected, the major parties' code of silence on the issue could be broken.

A real victory in Afghanistan. Now that the US is under rational leadership, and the Pakistani regime is finally starting to clean up the Taliban enclaves on its territory which have made the fight against them in Afghanistan so difficult, conditions there are more favorable than at any time since 2001.

10 January 2010

Rebuking cowardice

This essay in Britain's Guardian newspaper, on the occasion of the recent attempted murder of Kurt Westergaard, exemplifies the cowardly blame-the-victim mentality with which some weak-willed Westerners condemn any effort to stand up to Islamic bullying and cultural imperialism. Every excuse, evasion, and weasel-phrase of that mentality is represented here -- read it for yourself -- I will not dirty my keyboard by repeating them.

We all remember that, at the time of the original Danish cartoon crisis, the Vatican and other Christian authorities in Europe condemned the cartoons and sided with the tantrum-throwing Muslims. Of course, one would expect them to do that; it would be their natural ideological inclination. But the European secular media stood firm, in many cases even re-printing the cartoons (which few newspapers in the United States did at the time). How unfortunate that the Guardian is now turning its back on that honorable example.

What is really worth a look, though, is the reader comments on the essay. As best I can tell from reading a sample (there are hundreds of them), readers are unanimous in rebuking the essayist's stance, defending free expression, and calling out Islamic thuggery for what it is. Popes and archbishops may call for appeasement, but ordinary Europeans know better.

As for me, I've already posted what I consider the only possible appropriate response to the attack on Westergaard. Blasphemo ergo sum!

Thanks to Mendip for sending the link to the Guardian essay.

Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson

Iris Robinson is an MP (Member of the British Parliament) from Northern Ireland. Last year, at the age of 59, she had an extra-marital affair with a 19-year-old. When this fact became public knowledge, it aroused (to put things mildly) a certain amount of popular interest. Her political party expelled her, and the fallout could lead to a shift in the balance of power in Northern Ireland.

I see nothing objectionable about such a relationship, in and of itself. It's true that the age difference is unusual, but a 19-year-old is an adult, and I do not consider any truly consensual sexual interaction between adults to be immoral, no matter how many taboos it breaks.

Nor do I condemn Robinson for committing adultery. Having seen a couple of such situations up close myself, I know that there can be issues in the background which outsiders can neither know nor judge. Whether what she did was wrong in any meaningful sense is impossible for me (or you) to say.

There is, of course, the fact that she made use of her government connections to raise £50,000 ($80,000) which she then gave to her youthful paramour to open a business, an action which she failed to report as Parliamentary ethical standards require. But using high office to solicit money for dubious purposes is hardly unusual behavior for politicians; if this transaction were the only ethical violation of which she had ever been guilty, Robinson would have to be rated one of the most honest politicians alive.

So why am I bothering to write a blog post about this? Because Robinson is one of those Bible-thumping fanatics who make a career out of preaching morality and condemnation at the rest of us. She once famously condemned homosexuality as a "viler act.....than sexually abusing innocent children". Her political party, the Democratic Unionists, is a nest of religious hard-liners. I see nothing inherently wrong with intergenerational sex or (depending on circumstances) adultery, but she undoubtedly does, at least as far as her public stance is concerned.

And that's what makes the scandal engulfing her an event to savor. It's not the sex, it's the hypocrisy.

So, here's to you, Mrs. Robinson -- for joining with Sanford, Ensign, Vitter, Craig, Haggard, and so many others to discredit and defeat the holier-than-thou yammering that blights our societies.

Quote for the day

"Which is the other thing about the Beck/Limbaugh conservatives in Greenberg’s study: They are sectarian. Greenberg makes the key point that they think they have secret knowledge. All sectarians do. Those ultra-leftists who used to sit around arguing the fine points of Marx and Lenin did too. But if you have 'secret know-ledge', it’s very hard to communicate to those who, sadly, don’t know. The people in Greenberg’s focus group say they want to expand their numbers, but they’re too smug and certain about everything to really effectively do so."

Eugene Debs (pseudonym)

Peculiar and proud

At last! A day to honor people such as myself and, I suspect, a fairly generous number of my readers. Discovered via Mendip, whose blog is always a good source for such little-known oddities.

09 January 2010

Link roundup for 9 January 2010

A striking photo shows Britain covered with snow.

What if Twitter had existed throughout history?

You too can speak Teabag.

Taegan Goddard presents his top ten Michael Steele quotes.

Aux armes, mes bloggeurs! Evil forces threaten to Murdoch the internet (don't miss the comments).

Science needs help to spot the spot.

The film Avatar evokes Miyazaki (but by all accounts, it can't compare with the real thing).

Who is it that's calling liberals names?

Alabama has its share of real problems, but Republican politics there is dominated by an argument about the Bible.

Everybody hates Lieberman.

A conservative blogger decides to check out the opposition and comes under ruthless attack -- from her own side. More here.

An ominous symbol of racism is found in Plains, Georgia.

Markella Hatziano makes video art out of religion (found via Pharyngula).

Religion and logic don't mix very well.

Here's more on what those American fundies were preaching in Uganda.

Ireland's blasphemy law is logically incoherent (found via Holte Ender).

Marriage equality is coming to Portugal.

Here's yet another glimpse of the reality of Dubai.

Losing fear: Iranian protesters attack the theocracy's enforcers.

Iranian opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi becomes the target of an assassination attempt.

Keeping priorities straight: the US sells arms to Taiwan, the Beijing gangster-regime's bitching be damned.

Which one is our pal?

Maria Konovalenko gives us some brief pointers about the world's deadliest disease.

A wonder drug which may helps re-grow brain cells should soon be available in Washington DC.

Scientists are re-evaluating dolphins.

Global warming is driving polar bears onto human turf.

Warming may reduce the ability of trees to absorb carbon dioxide.

Among the hundreds of planets now known to exist in other solar systems, astronomers have finally found an Earth-like one. Sort of. One hemisphere of CoRoT-7 b (catchy name) has a temperature of over 4,000 degrees, while the other is at 350 below zero, and the year is 20 hours long. Just like home!

07 January 2010

To know that we don't know

Every so often discussions of religion on the internet evolve into discussions about free will. The problem which this subject raises is that as far as we can tell, all the processes known to modern physics are either deterministic or (in the case of certain quantum phenomena) random, whereas free will is neither. So how can free will exist in the universe as we know it?

The reason I no longer participate in such discussions is that they usually settle on just two positions:

1) Free will is irreconcilable with physics as we know it, therefore it must be a supernatural phenomenon, thus proving the existence of the soul, God, etc.

2) Free will is irreconcilable with physics as we know it, therefore it must be an illusion; that is, we don't really have free will and all our thoughts and actions are in fact mechanically generated by the deterministic laws of physics and possibly the random effects of quantum phenomena.

I'm not buying either of them. Humans have a rather long history of believing that anything they can't yet explain must therefore be supernatural. Lightning, disease, seasons, and the very existence of complex life forms were once thought to be explicable only by magic or by the intervention of a deity. Time passed, knowledge grew, and the real explanations were discovered.

That we do actually have free will seems to be so self-evident from experience that declaring it non-existent because it can't be fitted into the present theoretical model of physics looks like the kind of arrogance that no actual scientist would commit. Historically, observed phenomena which cannot be accommodated by existing theory are taken as a strong hint, at least, that the existing theory is incomplete.

Try to imagine people 1,000 years ago trying to figure out what makes the Sun shine. They could not possibly have arrived at the correct answer since it depends on a phenomenon (thermonuclear fusion) which was utterly beyond their knowledge at that time. It would be easy to imagine two factions developing -- one saying that sunlight couldn't be explained by then-known physics and must therefore be supernatural (God was causing it), and the other saying that sunlight couldn't be explained by then-known physics and must therefore be an illusion (the Sun is really not shining at all, we just think it is, due to some kind of flawed perception). Of course they would both have been wrong.

One certainly couldn't fault those people for not knowing about thermonuclear fusion. But one could fault them for refusing to recogize the possibility that the real answer might depend on some phenomenon not yet discovered.

Right now, all we can do is leave the problem of free will in that category. All we can say right now is that we have an observed phenomenon which doesn't fit the current model, and that we don't really know what that means. The next few decades will almost certainly bring a full and detailed understanding of human brain functions, simulation of those functions in computers, and eventually uploading of human minds into computer systems, allowing for a trillionfold increase in our intelligence, emotional sensitivity, and richness of sensory environments. That is, we will soon have vastly more actual data about free will (and every other aspect of how our minds work), as well as vastly increased ability to analyze such problems. We will figure it out. Until then, the honest thing to do is to admit that we don't know the answer.

The Republican strategy

One benefit of the Senate battle over health-care reform is that it shed light on the Republican strategy to win back power in this year's elections and beyond.

Obstruct, obstruct, obstruct -- block whatever the Democrats are trying to do, or at least force them to compromise it as much as possible. Limit the Democrats' achievements as much as possible.

To what purpose? To fuel cynicism and pessimism -- the most destructive forces that can take root in any movement -- within our side. To get people moaning that the Democrats can't get anything done, that they are sellouts. To get people talking about staying home in November or voting third-candidate. That's the Republicans' goal. Because all of that, no matter what motivations underlie it or what message it is intended to send, will have the practical effect of empowering Republicans.

Would any of us really punish candidates who share 80%-90% of our philosophy and empower the very people whose relentless obstruction prevented getting much of what we wanted enacted? Relatively few, I think, but that's all the Republicans need. In a close race, just 5% of the base staying home or voting for a third candidate could be enough to tip a seat from blue to red. And after that, all that matters is that the seat is red instead of blue. It makes no difference how or why it happened.

For the record, I don't think it will work. Obama seems to have suffered very little loss of popularity with the liberal base from January to December, and elections are won or lost in the center, which (unless something major and unexpected happens) will vote mostly on the basis of whether unemployment has improved by November or not. But be alert for the effects of the Republican strategy, and be ready to recognize them when you see them.

05 January 2010

America to Uganda to America

With this article in the New York Times, the MSM are starting to notice the issue of the American Christian Right's involvement in Uganda'a already-notorious "kill the gays" law. Three American evangelical preachers, of the sort who go around spouting what are more or less the equivalent of blood libels, took their act on the road to Uganda last year, thus lending a veneer of legitimacy to the prejudices already rampant in the country. Aside from a brief note that the chief perpetrator of the Ugandan law "boasts of having evangelical friends in the American government", there's no mention of "The Family" and its extensive ties to Ugandan fundamentalists.

Absent stronger evidence than I've seen so far, I don't think we can claim that American fundamentalists were actually the driving force behind this law, in the sense that it would not have been proposed without their influence. It's more a matter of fundamen-talists in different parts of the world thinking alike (which is hardly surprising -- the Old Testament says what it says) and cooperating with each other. Uganda, being more a traditional society and much less further along the road to modernity than the West is, is thus that much more susceptible to carrying this kind of mentality to its logical conclusion. A few centuries ago, when the West was still a traditional society and still actually took religion seriously, it didn't need any outside incitement to burn witches (or to kill homosexuals) either.

PZ Myers, as he so often does, cuts to the core of things: The ultimate goal of fundamentalism, whether in America or Uganda or wherever, is to turn the clock back inch by inch until the unthinkable becomes thinkable again. Hitler didn't start building gas chambers on his first day in office either. First demonize the target group with lies, dehumanize them, then persecute them, and finally the stage is set for mass killing. They won't succeed -- not here, at least -- but it baffles me that anyone is surprised by something like the Ugandan law. The Old Testament says what it says.

02 January 2010

Link roundup for 2 January 2010

MC 900 Ft Jesus performs "Truth Is Out of Style" (found via Ranch Chimp).

Romanian group Taxi performs a nice zippy pop song (but don't take romantic advice from them).

Larry Craig may be able to help improve airport security.

The Republican party has a list for Santa, and sends the Democrats a Christmas card.

Holte Ender explains Scotland's year-end tradition of Hogmanay.

If you stay at this hotel, don't turn the heat up too high (sent by Ranch Chimp).

Captain Fogg thinks neologisms are getting out of hand.

Does it really matter whether there is a god or not?

Imagine if religions were real (found via Pharyngula).

Tor.com posts a vast collection of Lovecraftian art (found via Mendip).

Beware the pooper-cam!

With the new year, gay marriage becomes legal in New Hampshire. Prepare to panic!

29% of Americans consider religion "out of date". (Such a figure obviously includes many self-described Christians, thus bolstering Christopher Hitchens's view that many people who call themselves Christians don't mean much by it.)

Jack Jodell has plans for the new year, and quotes.

Cody Kessler crunches the numbers on the Senate health bill.

Republican "pro-life" rhetoric clashes with reality.

Karl Rove shows his support for traditional marriage. And there's a new reason to marry.

Leslie Parsley posts about the return of the John Birch Society to the Republican mainstream (with a great Rachel Maddow video), and conjures up a horde of trolls.

Christian Right talk-radio loon J.D. Hayworth plans to challenge moderate Republican John McCain for his Senate seat.

McCain and Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell are proposing to revive the Glass-Steagall regulations on banking (the link is to BusinessWeek, which is having a major cow over the idea -- thus indicating that the proposal is likely to be effective at getting the bankers' shenanigans under control).

The US International Trade Commission rules against subsidized steel imports from China.

Mad Mike offers a sober perspective on the war with jihadism.

Airport security rules are stupid and about to get stupider. Since we need to improve our airport security, we should learn from the country that does it best.

The Iranian election and uprising topped Twitter searches for 2009.

Rioting mobs burned over a thousand cars in France on New Year's Eve.

A suicide bomber has killed at least 88 people at a volleyball match in Pakistan. Pakistan has been wracked with terrorist attacks since launching a major military offensive against the Taliban several months ago.

The Catholic Church is active in many parts of the world.

Smithsonian reviews some popular myths about the American War of Independence.

Freedom Democrats looks at libertarianism and global-warming denialism.

Russia is contemplating a space mission to deflect the asteroid Apophis, which will pass close to Earth in 2029 and 2036.

Blasphemy forever!

2010 got off to a bad start right away in Europe.

In Ireland, a new anti-blasphemy law went into effect, the Irish government apparently having missed the news that the Dark Ages are over. An Irish atheist group immediately challenged the law by posting 25 blasphemous quotes on its website (apparently down at the moment; view here) in hopes of forcing a showdown.

In Denmark, a Muslim attempted to murder Kurt Westergaard, the cartoonist who drew the best-known of the famous Muhammad cartoons published in the newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005, triggering the usual Islamic rioting and threats. Police responded quickly and shot the man, who was wounded but survived to be arrested.

In solidarity with Kurt Westergaard, the Irish atheists, and blasphemers everywhere, I am here reproducing Westergaard's cartoon (above) and the set of links I originally posted in honor of Blasphemy Day (below):

First (and my only link to myself, I promise), a book full of insight on Islam by former Muslim Ibn Warraq -- and why, in spite of appearances, it's hopeful.

The "Hank" video and Pat Condell on debating religion are in the links list, but be sure not to miss 'em!

MC Hawking, a rap act in tribute to the great physicist, performs What We Need More of Is Science and Fuck the Creationists.

Justify This presents Islam's Not for Me. And don't forget that It's in the Koran!

Bill Maher speaks out on religion and on religion in politics.

Salvatore Pertutti brings us Dieu and Sacrés Livres.

Stuck Mojo's Open Season is an exuberant response to the theocrats who want to rule the world.

Finally, since Blasphemy Day was conceived in honor of the famous Danish Muhammad cartoons, I'll close with the greatest and most truth-filled Muhammad cartoon ever.